Stage Fright? Here’s What to Do

Peak performance requires peak functioning, both mental and physical.  To accomplish that, a little adrenaline helps.  Yet most of us tend to experience adrenaline as “nerves” – a variety of symptoms beginning with edginess and going all the way up to full panic.  We don’t like those sensations, and so we think of them as bad and try to minimize them.

In fact, many of us will go to extreme lengths to avoid experiencing them.  A recent study  (by Jeremy P. Jamieson, Matthew K. Nock, and Wendy Berry Mendes of the University of Rochester, Harvard University, and the University of California, San Francisco, respectively) found that subjects would rather administer themselves a minor electric shock than give a short speech.

That’s unfortunate.  Your best response to the adrenaline caused by having to give a speech is to embrace it.   Redefine those symptoms as good signs that mean that your body is ready to kick some *ss and give a great speech!

Your second-best response is to practice some relaxation techniques to take the edge off the unpleasant feelings and then go ahead and use the adrenaline to perform at your peak efficiency.

Third best is to murder your relatives.  I worked with a gentleman once who did that.  In fact, he kept a spreadsheet of his (apparently) deceased relatives so that he wouldn’t kill them more than once.

He was a V-P of a large company, and was called on frequently to speak to employees, shareholders, and the public.  He would always accept, believing that he had to – it was part of his job.  Then, when the date got close, he would announce that a relative had died and say that he had to go to the funeral.  A deputy would step in and give the speech in his place.

The system worked reasonably well, until he began to run out of relatives.  Then, he called me.  I wish I could say that I helped him, but his speech phobia was so extreme that he couldn’t even manage to get to our sessions, so I had to give up after trying several times to schedule – and keep – a meeting.

I didn’t want any more of his relatives to die.   So I recommended that he take Beta Blockers – something that apparently three-quarters of symphony orchestra performers do to help with chronic stage fright.  (You’ll need a doctor’s prescription for this solution.)

If you can, embrace your adrenaline.  Practice relaxation techniques to help cope with the worst of the symptoms.  And if all else fails, there’s always pharma.

Comments

  1. David Wise says

    Great teaser Nick. I was definitely reading on to find out how he went about murdering his relatives.

  2. says

    Hi Nick,
    Over 20 years of public speaking, I become a master at preparing, which for me is not so much about rehearsing, but having a real relationship to the content and the audience. A lot of my speaking is done into dead space. Recording presentations for self-study webinars. But I often have live in-person audiences, too.
    I never lack for stage fright and the sense that I have completely lost or forgotten all my content. I have learned to celebrate that feeling. Why? I’ve learned that I have entered into the zone of inspiration and the glorious feeling of the question. I’ve crossed the threshold into the moment of surprise – that I have actually prepared in order to forget and be new in the moment.
    My talks have become more about presence than performance. I have also learned to be sensitive to when a speaker is so in the moment that what they say actually is new and surprising and so alive with the dynamic that includes all the the speaker is bringing and all that the audience is seeking. Nothing disappoints me more than when a speaker is not surprising himself with new thoughts and only offering words from the past, beautifully delivered, highly intelligent, but dead, lacking creativity, spontaneity, and real connection with the moment and the audience.
    Thanks so much for your blogs, I always learn something.

    • Nick MorganNick Morgan says

      Lynn, thanks so much for the wonderful reflection on stage fright, and for sharing your experience. You’ve achieved that kind of in-the-moment spontaneity which comes from deep experience — marvelous. I’ll bet your presentations are amazing!

  3. says

    Great story, Nick — you made me laugh — and great advice, especially about aligning with the nerves. I always find your posts illuminating and useful.

  4. says

    Nice post. Beta blockers are extremely addictive. If you are going to speak often, then you are just going to have to gradually expose yourself more and more often to speaking. With the right attitude and state training (relaxation training is one way to do this) for most people the fear will reduce over time.

    • Nick MorganNick Morgan says

      Thanks, Aleks, for your comment. And you’re right — my recommendation for beta blockers was tongue-in-cheek. Dealing with the symptoms by redefining them (and perhaps some relaxation work) is much preferred!

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